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Tom Baxter

Shortened calendar for 2014 races has time for surprises

By Tom Baxter

Generally speaking, shortening the calendar would be viewed as a way to make a race more interesting. The Republican state officials who went one better on a federal court order and got next year’s primary date moved all the way back to May 20 had just the opposite in mind, however.

By moving the primary date back into the school year and holding the runoff in July, they reasoned, a broader turnout will be guaranteed. That reduces the chance that the party nominates someone so far to the right that they’re vulnerable to Democrat Michelle Nunn in the U.S. Senate race. Moving up the calendar also gives incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal’s rivals in the party less time to pester him.

Here’s one instance in which political calculation and good government end up in pretty much the same place. Whatever the short-term implications of the calendar changes, holding elections at a time when a broader number of voters will participate is probably, in the long run, a good thing.

While the reasoning that led to the shortened calendar was sound, changing the length of a race can always lead to unexpected consequences, and if ever there were a year crying for that, it’s the one upcoming.

The conventional wisdom — what little of that there is — says Deal’s bid for re-election is a snooze, and the race for the Senate seat left by Saxby Chambliss is the on to watch, a conviction ratified by a front-page, pre-Labor Day story in the New York Times.

This CW may be overselling the sizzle in the Senate race, and underestimating the interest factor, if not the odds, in the governor’s race.

Nunn may prove to be as sturdy a mainstream candidate as one might surmise from the early August poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, which had her in no worse than a tie with any of her potential Republican opponents. But that potential still has to be proven on the ground.

The daughter of one of the most respected political figures in the state, Nunn is a near-prohibitive favorite over four other announced Democratic candidates, but moving up the primary calendar could still lend her an unintended favor. Dealing with long-shot primary opponents can be tricky, especially for a newly minted candidate, and this shortens the period she will have to do so.

It’s interesting to compare Nunn’s campaign — and you can be sure a lot of national Democratic contributors are — with that of Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergen Grimes, the Democrat trying to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. There are a lot of parallels, but Grimes has a distinct advantage in having already run a statewide race.

She also got a very early chance to make a pitch from the same state as McConnell at last month’s Fancy Farm Picnic, an event which I wish some public-minded organization in Georgia would decide to imitate.

Shortening the calendar may change the dynamics somewhat on the Republican side. But the real questions are whether a broader Republican electorate in this state is much more moderate than its harder core, and whether this matters in a general election race against a Democrat. It remains to be shown that it does.

Deal’s prospects for reelection may be every bit as good as they’re thought to be, but in the space of a week he picked up a second Republican challenger, state School Superintendent John Barge, his first Democratic opponent, former state Sen. Connie Stokes of Lithonia, and a good deal of negative national attention.

The  liberal blogs have discovered the Real PAC story, and the suggestion of a Republican governor opposing the Medicaid expansion taking money on the side from big medical interests (with other contributions welcomed, of course), makes it ripe for them.

Barge and Dalton Mayor David Pennington have both targeted ethics as an area in which they intend to engage Deal, so it should be ripe for them as well. Real PAC may be legal to the dotted “i,” but a single detail — WellCare of Georgia contributed $50,000 on the same day it got a two-year extension of a $1 billion-a-year contract with the state Medicaid system —  shows its potential as ad fodder.

The bigger problem for Deal may be the Medicaid expansion itself. No one really knows what the impact will be when ObamaCare kicks in next January, with provisions which penalize states which decline to expand their programs and incentives for those that do.

If the impact is worse than expected, Deal could find himself stuck between conservatives who oppose ObamaCare at any costs, and those who simply know that things have gotten worse in their lives, and he’s the governor.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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